Sunday, March 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Story of George

A long time ago, when I was first starting to do school visits back in the mid-nineties, I was in front of a class of second graders. This is younger than I should really be talking to, but I think it was part of a festival, or maybe it was one of those times when the only way the school can do the visit is if you see a range of grades, I don't remember. With older kids I have a variety of presentations (fewer then than I do now), but with younger kids I tend to fall back on the presentation that works with everybody: How to Get an Idea.

Different people use the same basic concept, but in my version, I get a kid to flip a coin. Heads, our idea will center on a female; tails, on a male. (Yes, this is simplistic, but the visiting author is the wrong person to introduce the concept of intersex and transgender individuals to a second-grade class. Unless you're intersex or transgender yourself, of course, in which case congratulations on getting a school visit in our conservative educational system and I have no advice to give you.)

Call for ideas from the class. What is this character's name? What does he look like? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? You as temporary authority will get the final choice among the suggestions offered, so as to create a little coherence and avoid cliches, and will be able to gauge the overall character of the class. (Make sure you don't get the name of anybody who's in the actual class, by the way.) One class will come up with a flying dog superhero named Abracazam and another class will come up with an orphan illegal immigrant named Josefina, and your job is to roll with it. This particular class created George, a black second-grade nerd with thick glasses and suspenders, whose strengths were that he was smart and could program computers, but whose weaknesses were that he was short, a physical wimp, and shy.

I rely heavily on the formulation that a plot = character + conflict; or, as I put it to the second-graders, a story is about a person with a problem. So what problem should George have? A number of routine suggestions were made, but I kept pressing them for something a little more interesting. One kid said: "He gets beat up a lot." I said, yeah, that was a realistic problem, but if we go with that, we have to generate a villain, too. Who is it that's beating him up, and why? A flurry of suggestions came - the class bully, his big brother, a drug dealer - and then somebody said: "His little sister beats him up."

And I said "Oooooh."

I had to reject a couple of silly developments on this idea - the sister could not realistically be two years old - but once they got the idea the class was forthcoming. His sister was a year younger than him (I don't remember what they named her), but taller and stronger, and she pushed him around because she could. Well, you would, wouldn't you? At that age, the temptation would be irresistible. And poor George would be in a serious bind, because the one person in the world you cannot hit back is your little sister! And as for tattling, forget it - no one is going to admit to being physically bullied in this situation. He's going to have to outsmart her. But the obvious counterattacks - set her up to get into trouble; devise personal armor; set traps for her - are only going to escalate the tension. Setting her up makes her mad and increases the bullying; she'll find vulnerabilities in the armor. Ultimately they're going to have to come to terms and make a truce. You could introduce a common enemy against whom they have to gang up; or George could come up with a revenge trap so fiendish that it makes his sister cry and they both learn from the experience; or or or...

We did not generate an ending because we didn't have time, but also because I like to end this presentation by pointing out that every person in the room could leave the room and write the story of the characters and problem we'd just been discussing - and we'd all write a different story. My hope is that at least some of the kids will indeed sit down and finish on their own; and it gives the teacher a hook on which to hang extra credit if she wants to.

I never did anything with George, and I don't know whether this class did or not, but I treasure the memory of his creation and I think this is one of the more brilliant ideas I've ever been a part of, sparkly with possibilities. Why I don't write this story I couldn't tell you. Possibly it's too close to home, our family having been a pretty savage one on the sibling rivalry front. I've never done well when I tried to write a straight domestic novel.

So I share him with the world, both as a strong concept in his own right, and as an example of what ordinary people can come up with in less than an hour, if given the opportunity and a mental framework.

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